Now that the college basketball season's midway point has arrived for the UCLA Bruins, three words best describe coach Ben Howland's team:
Youth. Inexperience. Mediocrity.
After a 2-6 start that included losses to Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State (of all people!), the Bruins have gone a respectable 5-3 since that horrendous beginning, with a record of 2-2 in the Pac-10 Conference.
It was a foregone conclusion that UCLA was going to be in a rebuilding mode after losing standouts like Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, and Jrue Holiday to the NBA.
One could say that the team has improved over the past eight games in winning five out of their last eight, but issues still remain.
Malcolm Lee, Tyler Honeycutt, Reeves Nelson, and Jerime Anderson are young players who have talent and potential, but have made costly mistakes such as turnovers—which were a main factor in their 70-59 loss to Stanford last Saturday.
Nelson, in particular, is a beast in the paint who will battle and do whatever is necessary to get rebounds, but is terrible at shooting free throws.
Anderson has continued to make too many mistakes at point guard. His tipped pass at the end of overtime at California last Wednesday would have spelled disaster if not for the ball falling into Michael Roll's hands and Roll subsequently hitting the winning shot with less than two seconds left.
As much as I hate to say it, the Bruins lucked out there.
In short, UCLA has suffered from a combination of freshman growing pains, Howland's reluctance to open up the offense, and his hesitance to play zone defense, which he has finally done at times these past two weeks.
With their record currently at 7-9, UCLA does have a shot at finishing at .500, which Howland has marked as his goal. It all depends on how much the Bruins continue to progress and which team shows up at games.
One source of hope is the fact that the Pac-10 is down this year with no teams standing out, making any conference game winnable.
USC comes to Pauley Pavilion this Saturday, and although the recent sanctions have rendered their year meaningless, the Trojans did go on an eight game winning streak led by forward Leonard Washington and transfer guard Mike Gerrity, who immediately turned 'SC around after arriving at Galen Center.
Beating them will be difficult, as Gerrity clearly has the edge over Anderson and Lee at guard and Washington has the edge in the frontcourt over Nelson and Nikola Dragovic.
Hopefully, with their fans' help, the Bruins will find a way to win in their friendly confines.
It's more or less a given that the only way UCLA will see the postseason will be to win the Pac-10 Tournament in March.
Unfortunately, no one in Bruin Nation is expecting that this year, so the only thing to do is to look for progress and improvement in this bunch.
If they show that, then the future will look bright in Westwood.